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Home   News   Tebbutt: Rafa 10, No. 1 Court 38

Tebbutt: Rafa 10, No. 1 Court 38

Jun 13, 2017
written by: Tom Tebbutt

When historians look back at Roland Garros 2017 and write about Rafael Nadal’s remarkable 10th title, they may also include a footnote mention of it being the last year for one of the most cozy, quaint stadiums in tennis.

Court No. 1, widely known as “the bullring,” will be demolished before next year’s French Open as part of an ongoing expansion of the site. That will end 38 years of tennis fans’ love affair with the intimate, 3,802-seat arena.

Build in 1980 with a circular design so as not to infringe on adjacent Court Philippe Chatrier when its large crowds poured out, the bullring (above during the Raonic – Carreno Busta match last week) had as close to a perfect feel as possible in an arena with its seating capacity.

So adieu Court No. 1 – you will be fondly remembered, and missed.

Credit: Peter Figura

Nadal didn’t play in Court No. 1 this year or in any year in recent memory because his stature always commanded either 15,000-seat Chatrier or 10,000 Court Suzanne Lenglen.

On Sunday in Chatrier, Nadal established one of those records that may never be eclipsed when he bulldozed Stan Wawrinka 6-2, 6-3, 6-1 in the final for a 10th title at a single Grand Slam event.

He did it over 13 years with 79 wins and only two losses – in 2009 when he was bothered by a knee issue and his parents’ separation and lost to Robin Soderling in the fourth round and in the 2015 quarter-finals when he went out to Novak Djokovic at a time when the Serb was playing sublime tennis and he himself was at a low ebb – not winning a single European clay-court event that spring.

Realistically looking back, Nadal probably should not have lost to Soderling in 2009 – opening the way for Roger Federer to beat the Swede in the final and get his one and only Roland Garros title – but also maybe should not have beaten Djokovic in the 2013 semifinal when the Serb would have been a point from a 5-3 fifth set lead if he hadn’t been unlucky and touched the net on what was a clear-cut put-away, rally-ending shot.

And going back further, in 2004 (champion – Gaston Gaudio) when Nadal turned 18 during Roland Garros, he was unable to play there or at any lead-up events because of a stress fracture in his foot suffered on clay in April in Estoril against childhood rival Richard Gasquet. Even at that tender age, he might well have been good enough to win Roland Garros.

That’s all speculation but Nadal has certainly established himself as the greatest champion at a single Grand Slam event in history.

It seemed a little silly on Sunday when virtually every report said he was the only player in the “open era (since 1968)” to win 10 Grand Slam titles at one event. That was simply because Margaret Court won 11 Australian Opens between 1960 – 1973 against modest fields Down Under. But men don’t compete against women on the court and shouldn’t in the record books – Nadal’s accomplishment is both awesome and unequalled. He’s the only player in his field to win a single Grand Slam title 10 times dating back to the very beginning of competition at Wimbledon in 1877.

‘Rafa’ (with Uncle Toni above) is virtually injouable (unplayable) on clay and has never even been taken to five sets in a French Open final – winning six in four sets and four in three.

This year had to be particularly satisfying for the 31-year-old Majorcan because a right wrist injury forced him out in the third round of last year’s Roland Garros, and disrupted his year. A huge training commitment in the 2016 off-season paid off despite the disappointment of a five-set loss to Roger Federer in the Australian Open final in January. Back on the familiar terre battue of France and Europe in the spring, he was revitalized and again his old untouchable self.

His only loss of the red clay season came to Dominic Thiem in Rome and he could well have passed on that event after winning in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Madrid but felt obligated to show up and give it a shot.

Now he’s up to No. 2 in the rankings, 2605 points behind No. 1 Andy Murray. But it’s an unusual situation heading into the grass-court season – Nadal has zero points to defend because he missed all grass events in 2016 and Murray has maximum points to try to back up – 500 for winning Queen’s Club and 2000 for his Wimbledon victory.

Come July 16th, the day Wimbledon ends, if Nadal performs well at Queen’s and Wimbledon and Murray stumbles, the indefatigable lefty has a chance to get back to No. 1 for the first time since June 23, 2014. In any case, he has a sizeable 6,915 points to 4,045 for Federer lead in the year-to-date Race and is even further ahead of No. 6 Djokovic (1,975) and No. 7 Murray (1,937).

Looking ahead to Wimbledon, could there possibly be a better scenario than all-time greats Nadal and Federer meeting at The Championships? It would be a dream match-up at the grandest tournament of them all between two past champions and the winners of the first two Grand Slam events of this year.

Credit: Peter Figura

The men’s event at Roland Garros, with the exception of No. 2 seed Novak Djokovic losing in the quarter-finals, went almost exactly according to form with four of the top six seeds reaching the semifinals and No. 1 Nadal and No. 3 Wawrinka meeting for the championship.

The women’s singles was a different story and virtually no one could have seen a player who started the year ranked No. 44, and entered Roland Garros at No. 47, winning the title.

Jelena Ostapenko, who turned 20 on the day of her semifinal win over Timea Bacsinszky, was a highly improbable but also highly-entertaining winner.

There was little subtlety in the Latvian’s game – she is a ‘go big or go home,’ ‘grip it and rip it’ kind of player. She was basically out of the final when No. 3 seed and 2014 runner-up Simona Halep led 6-4, 3-0, and had three points to go ahead 4-0. But from the brink of almost trailing 6-4, 4-0 and looking completely frustrated, Ostapenko survived to 3-1 down and began to swing more freely with an aggressive onslaught that really left few answers – except to hope for misses – for Halep.

There certainly were misses but 54 winners and 54 unforced errors in the 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 win by Ostapenko is a formula for success because it meant she was dominating play, wearing down her opponent’s resistance and eventually breaking her will.

It’s hard to believe that Ostapenko’s last tournament win was a $50,000 ITF Futures event in St. Petersburg, Russia, more than two years ago in February 2015.

The question now is what to expect of this power player who jumped up to No. 12 in the WTA rankings with her win.

“I think if I have a really good day and I’m hitting really well, I think anything is possible,” Ostapenko said in her post-match media conference.

It would be hard to deny that claim based on her performances at Roland Garros – including three-set wins over 2011 US Open champion Samantha Stosur and former No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki in the round-of-16 and the quarter-finals.

Credit: Peter Figura

The odds are Ostapenko will not have an entirely smooth ride right to the top of women’s tennis. The expectations and pressures that come with such precocious success aren’t easy to manage. But longer term her future is bright.

Maybe the real fall-out from her victory will affect players like Halep, players who play a consistent, solid game-style but don’t have the break-out power of the explosive Latvian.

Halep has been in two French Open finals and semifinals at both Wimbledon and the US Open but at 25, and getting older, she’s always going to be vulnerable against bigger hitters like Ostapenko who can blunt her more patient tactical tennis with raw power.

It could be similar to the 1990s when Martina Hingis appeared to be a tactical genius until power players like Lindsay Davenport, Serena and Venus Williams and Jennifer Capriati came along and were simply able to neutralize her guile with heavy hitting.

Here are two groups of current players – some others are in the middle – who represent the two categories of players – big hitters and tacticians:

BIG HITTERS                  TACTICIANS

Karolina Pliskova          Angelique Kerber

Garbiñe Muguruza        Simona Halep

Petra Kvitova                 Elina Svitolina

Madison Keys                Caroline Wozniacki

Jelena Ostapenko         Agnieszka Radwanska

And that’s without mentioning power players Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka who are currently in varying stages of involvement at the top level of the game.

There’s also Genie Bouchard, who’s in the big hitter mold. Ostapenko’s victory must have her feeling her age. The Latvian is three years younger and won the 2014 Wimbledon junior girls title two years after Bouchard did likewise in 2012.

Les années se suivent et se ressemblent (the years go by and resemble each other) is a French expression.

Whether that will apply going forward as regards the big hitters in women’s tennis remains to be seen.

In the meantime, let’s give props to one of biggest and purest strikers of the ball in women’s tennis history – three-time Grand Slam champion Davenport.

Before the 2017 French Open began, five Tennis Channel commentators had some fun and drafted players to be the eventual champion – with the bottom line involving only unseeded players. The picture below shows how it shook out.

Davenport’s other selections may have been a little dubious, but she certainly couldn’t have looked any more astute than she did with her unseeded player pick.

DOUBLING ON DOUBLES TITLES

Credit: Peter Figura

Bianca Andreescu of Mississauga, Ont., and Carson Branstine of Montreal, seeded No. 1, won their second junior girls Grand Slam title of the year on Saturday defeating No. 2 seeds Oleysa Pervushina and Anastasia Potapova of Russia 6-1, 6-3 in the French Open final.

The ride to the Roland Garros championship, which follows up on their victory at the Australian Open in January, was reasonably smooth except for a nail-biter 3-6, 6-3, [13-11] second-round win over Amina Anshba of Russia and Kaja Juvan of Slovenia.

Winning was particularly meaningful for Branstine because between Australia and Roland Garros she changed from representing the U.S. to representing Canada. She moved from California and now trains at Tennis Canada’s National Training Centre in Montreal.

Credit: Peter Figura

It appears that Branstine and Andreescu will not get a chance to go for a third Grand Slam title in a row because Andreescu is not playing the junior event at Wimbledon next month. She’ll be in the main-draw Wimbledon qualifying at the end of this month and then take a break to prepare for a heavy load of hard-court tournaments this summer.

There’s a possibility she could play the juniors at the US Open in September.

Andreescu, who turns 17 on Friday, currently ranks No. 194 in the WTA rankings while the 16-year-old Branstine does not have a WTA ranking. But at No. 8, she’s ahead of No. 10 Andreescu in the current ITF junior rankings, which combine singles and doubles results.

GOING GREEN

Credit: Jan-Willem de Lange

Canada’s top three players – Milos Raonic, Genie Bouchard and Vasek Pospisil – are now focusing on getting into lawn tennis on the green grass at several European locations.

This week Pospisil, ranked No. 83, is at the ATP 250 event in s-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands. He qualified and won his opening round match on Monday 7-5, 6-1 over No. 282 Tallon Griekspoor of the Netherlands, a wild card. It marks Pospisil’s eighth match victory in a row going back to a Challenger title in Busan, Korea, last month and includes two rounds of qualifying in s-Hertogenbosch.

In the second round he will face Alexandr Dolgopolov, a 6-2, 7-6(3) winner on Tuesday over No. 4 seed Steve Darcis.

Next week Pospisil plays the qualifying for the ATP 500 event in Halle and then – undetermined as yet – another tournament the week before Wimbledon.

Raonic will not begin his grass-court campaign until next week at the ATP 500 event at Queen’s Club in London where he’s part of a strong field that includes Andy Murray, Rafael Nadal, Stan Wawrinka, Marin Cilic, Grigor Dimitrov, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Tomas Berdych, Jack Sock, Nick Kyrgios and John Isner.

A year ago the No. 6-ranked Raonic lost a close 6-7(5), 6-4, 6-3 final to Murray after leading a set and 3-1 and a point for 4-1.

Next week, as long as her right ankle injury is healed, the No. 52-ranked Bouchard returns to the Mediterranean island of Majorca for the WTA International Series event that includes the return of Victoria Azarenka, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Kiki Bertens, Anastasija Sevastova, Caroline Garcia and Carla Suarez Navarro.

A year ago in Majorca, Bouchard lost 6-3, 6-3 in the second round to Sevastova, the same player who beat her in round two at Roland Garros two weeks ago.

ROLAND GARROS T-SHIRTS

These are T-shirts that were on sale at the Roland Garros shops on-site. The first one top row on the right was popular and translates colloquially as, “I can’t, I’m at Roland.”

PARIS POST CARD

You gotta love the French for their (over?) use of English words. This picture from the Le Marais in central Paris contrasts two polar opposite eateries – on the left a vegetarian restaurant and on the right an unabashed ‘burger joint.’